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Trying to Restore the Vote to Prisoners Hurts More Than It Helps

By Jon Sherman | April 29, 2019

With every passing week, there seems to be a new litmus test for Democratic presidential candidates. Last week’s was whether a felon should be permitted to vote while serving time in prison. At CNN town halls on April 22, Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed the idea of enfranchising those currently serving prison sentences, Mayor Pete Buttigieg did not, and former prosecutor Sen. Kamala Harris hedged, calling for “a conversation.”

But no one’s commitment to voting rights should be judged based on a policy that has been adopted by only two states—Maine and Sanders’ Vermont. This is not a pragmatic or strategic approach to changing these laws in the near future. Reasonable people—including those who care deeply about civil rights and democracy—can and do differ on whether felons should be allowed to vote during incarceration, even as more and more citizens and their representatives favor earlier and easier restoration of this right. There are millions of disenfranchised people nationwide who have completed their prison sentences, and restoring their right to vote would constitute a tectonic shift in civil rights. Focusing on this widely popular policy goal before trying something that is far less agreed upon is not just practical politics but also smart policy.

Most states restore voting rights at some point after incarceration, usually following parole or probation, while an ever-shrinking minority of states require a felon to petition the state government for restoration. But only 15 states—plus the District of Columbia—restore voting rights immediately upon release from incarceration. Bringing 33 additional states into that column would constitute an enormous change—a “revolution” by any definition. It would immediately restore the voting rights of millions who are still completing a period of supervised release but who have successfully finished their prison terms. Permitting parolees and probationers to vote helps reintegrate them into society, and there is some evidence that it can diminish the chances that a person will break the law again.

There is also already momentum for change on this issue, as evidenced by the passage of a constitutional amendment in Florida restoring voting rights to most felons who have completed their sentences, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to reenfranchise parolees in New York, and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ support for amending the Iowa Constitution to restore voting rights to returning citizens who have completed their sentences.

But as any observer of the state legislative debates on this issue knows, there is no nationwide consensus or trend in favor of Maine and Vermont’s policy to let all felons vote, including those still in prison for the most serious and violent crimes. This year in New Mexico, where Democrats control both houses of the legislature and the governor is a Democrat, a bill to end all felon disenfranchisement, including during incarceration, stalled in committee. By the time legislators decided to amend it to restoration following release from prison—which would have restored an estimated 16,000 people—they ran out of time and the bill failed. Now, nothing will pass until 2021.

By contrast, last week in Nevada, a bill to adopt voting rights restoration following the end of incarceration passed the assembly with bipartisan support and is on to the state Senate. If enacted, this legislation will restore approximately 77,000 people in one fell swoop. The assembly speaker, who sponsored AB 431, should be commended for not holding up the voting rights of approximately 77,000 American citizens who have completed the hardest part of their criminal sentences for the much more controversial voting eligibility of about 14,800 people in prison. Colorado is currently considering similar legislation.

Drawing the line at restoration following release from prison is a pro-voter and completely defensible position. It is also the line drawn in the Democracy Restoration Act, a bill that has been introduced in Congress for many sessions and has now been incorporated in H.R. 1, which the House of Representatives recently passed. Adopting restoration upon release from prison would vastly improve the laws in no fewer than 33 states, if adopted, restoring voting rights to an estimated 2 million to 3 million people. That could hardly be dismissed as minor, craven, or incremental reform.

Seeking change in the near term requires advocacy based on the evidence of where popular will is currently and where it could be led. Taking stock of where 50 state legislatures and the D.C. Council are on this issue is a good gauge of popular opinion and the scope of likely reform on felon voting rights restoration. This approach would positively affect millions of people right away: people who have paid their debt and who should be given a chance to fully participate in their communities.

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